Rental Car Confusion

The marketing tactics of Europe’s major rental car companies often get in the way of their customers’ understanding of the process. Example: in quoting prices, rental companies always cite a specific make and model; Volkswagen Golf, Mercedes C-200, Audi A4, etc. Many travelers are under the impression that they will drive the exact vehicle mentioned in the quote.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. When quoting or confirming a booking, rental companies always use the term “or similar.” That full-size Mercedes Benz C-200 you think you booked could turn out to be an Opel Signum, Peugeot 607 or a make of car you’re totally unfamiliar with, such as a Skoda or Seat (pronounced See-ott). It is vitally important that a prospective renter understand that rental companies guarantee by category—economy, compact, intermediate, full-size, compact wagon, intermediate wagon, full-size van, standard van, premium, luxury, etc.—not by specific make or model. Within the category booked you are guaranteed a type of transmission (manual or automatic), number of doors (two or four) and whether the car is air-conditioned. This guarantee does not extend to engine type or size, trunk style (hatchback or regular), color or equipment—though a few rentals may specify diesel engine, and more expensive categories may guarantee GPS.

This means the rental company can give you any car it has decided to place in the category you reserved (or a car in a higher category, but more on that in a minute). In fact, scant attention is paid to the make and model mentioned in the reservation. Let’s say, for example, you've booked an intermediate sedan (IDMR in rental-speak) from Europcar for pickup at the Frankfurt Airport. Your confirmation says “VW Passat or similar.” Let’s also say you are one of 75 people scheduled to drive off in an IDMR that same day from FRA. A few days prior to your arrival, when the Europcar Frankfurt station manager checks his reservation system, it will tell him for the day of your arrival he needs 75 intermediate sedans, plus a few more for “walk-ups.” To be brutally honest, he doesn't care in the least whether the IDMR you get is a VW Passat, Opel Vectra, Peugeot 407, Ford Mondeo, or something else.

Unfortunately, not all cars in a category are equal. For example, many rental companies put the BMW 3-series in the fullsize category, even though that car doesn't have the luggage space of an intermediate. Thus if your reservation says “Mercedes C-200 or similar,” and you’re banking on driving that particular vehicle because that’s what your reservation says, and because you choose to ignore the “or similar” phrase, and because you went to your local Mercedes dealer and satisfied yourself that the C-200’s trunk will accommodate your luggage, you could be in trouble when the agent at the counter assigns you a BMW 318. Oops, you've got four people with luggage and there’s no way four suitcases fit in the Beamer’s trunk. In this situation most rental agents will work with you to provide a car that will accommodate your needs, but once in a while push comes to shove; you have to take the BMW, pay for an upgrade, or walk away. (Note: travelers who book with Europe are given a toll-free help line.) My advice is hope for the best but plan for the worst. If you have a lot of luggage, book a wagon. And be very surprised if the make and model rental car you are given matches the one shown on your booking.

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